Walkabout: FOCUS group busy fulfilling a mission for the Hill District

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The storefront at 2228 Centre Ave. has a history of being an unorthodox "third place" in the Hill District. For years, it was Robert Cook's used furniture shop, where men of a certain age would gather to exchange wisdom, maybe play a little pool.

I stopped there the other day to find out about Mr. Cook. I had not seen his truck parked outside for a while. When I walked through the door, everyone in the room smiled at me. Wow. You don't always get smiles from people who already know you, much less strangers.

They told me Mr. Cook died several months ago. The vibe is still one of a community gathering place, but it's no longer an unorthodox one. Two years ago, it became the home of FOCUS Pittsburgh. FOCUS stands for Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve. The organization is part of FOCUS North America, based in Kansas City, Mo.

In what looks like a crowded thrift store, FOCUS Pittsburgh's two paid staff members and a bevy of volunteers operate a full-service support network for people who need food, clothing, household items, job counseling and training.

In the past few years, support systems like this have seemed to proliferate, and I've often wondered whether there are too many competing for limited money. I've thought the same thing about environmental groups: Wouldn't a consolidation of all the green nonprofits provide more bang for the buck?

I'm inclined to think that the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and the slew of other environmental efforts could make small donations go a lot farther if they lobbied as one big group. But when it comes to serving the needy populations of our cities and towns, I'm now thinking the more the better.

The buck becomes less important when neighbors serve their neighbors, so every neighborhood should have at least one storefront that people can walk to. There's plenty of bang in the giving away of items we don't need and time we do have. The items FOCUS stocks are not sold, they're given. Volunteers donated 1,091 hours in March.

Most of the volunteers live in the neighborhood and understand the needs of the people they serve, said Paul Abernathy, the local FOCUS director.

"Everyone here has struggled themselves," he said. "When we tell them we're packaging bags of healthy food for children, they know what it's like to have food insecurity. We help people get IDs and birth certificates, and they know what it's like" to be without them. "We help people find housing, and our volunteers know what it's like to search for housing.

"Community matters," he said. "Relationships matter."

The operation runs on $300,000 a year in donations from among 62 Orthodox Christian churches, other churches and individuals, Mr. Abernathy said.

Every Friday morning, volunteers gather at the storefront to meet the FOCUS truck whose driver has just made the weekly run to a Sam's Club. They fill bags with granola bars, fruit, juices and other healthy foods, and the driver delivers them to three schools to be dispensed to 170 students.

The idea, said Carmen Williams, a volunteer, is that at least for the weekend, the children will have some good food; they qualify for reduced-fee lunches at their schools.

FOCUS wants to serve more children and is seeking a $20,000 grant from the Walmart Fighting Hunger Together project for its BackPack Program. The organization that gets the most votes through April will win the money. People can vote by going to www.focuspittsburgh.org and clicking on the link to Walmart's Facebook page.

Donna Butler, the assistant director at FOCUS Pittsburgh, said the program buys its own food rather than depending on a nonprofit that might require proof that its recipients really need the help.

"We don't do that," she said. "We're a ministry."

Almost no one who volunteered on the days I visited FOCUS is a member of an Orthodox Christian congregation, but it doesn't matter, said Mr. Abernathy, a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit College. He served in Iraq in the Army and got a master's in public and international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh before joining the Orthodox faith and going to seminary.

"It's not just what we do but how we do it that matters," he said. "It's significant that it is being led by people in the community. This has to be a place where people are comfortable."

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Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk. First Published April 9, 2013 4:00 AM


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